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War stories inspired Adelaide’s Flanders Fields Poppy Trail

Thursday 30 June, 2016

Heide Van Gerwe

Image (Left to right) Honorary French Consul, Sue Crafter with Honorary Belgian Consul, Heidi Van Gerwen installing the poppies along North Terrace to mark the Flanders Fields Poppy Trail. Photo Mrs Lan Le.

When growing up in the ‘60s in Flanders (Belgium), I enjoyed sitting around the “Leuvense Stoof “an early 20th century Flemish Stove decorated with enamel poppies. Our small country cottage on the Dutch-Belgian border was once the home of a butter smuggler. It was a haven for us, one that allowed our family to escape the hustle and bustle of city life in Antwerp, and where my family spent many of our weekends during my childhood.

Both my parents were professionals. Often they could not leave the city on weekends, and my grandparents and great – aunt would take me and my brothers to the cottage instead. Our little farm had not been renovated since it had been built – around the turn of the 20th century. We lived there as though time had stood still. At night we listened to all sorts of stories told to us by my grandparents, including many about both the World Wars and the impact they had had on Belgium and on members of my family. None of the stories we were told covered what actually happened on the battlefields. This was a “No-Go” zone. I recall we used to play with our great-grandfather’s war medals, not realising their true meaning at the time.

Many Australians probably don’t realise that up to 200,000 Belgians fled to the United Kingdom in World War 1, and many more went to France and to the Netherlands. My great-aunt was one of these.  She fled Belgium during the First World War when she was just a teenager, taking refuge in Glasgow, Scotland. We listened to her stories about growing up there, many related to how food was sourced while living in poverty. For example, they used acorns or the root of the Belgian Endives (chicory) to replace coffee. Aunt Bertha was so proud that she could speak English upon her return to Belgium after the war.  In fact, I learned my first very first English words from her.

My grandfather on my Father’s side had worked as a young blacksmith when World War I broke out. He was forced to place new horse shoes on the stolen horses from his neighbourhood, now being used by the German Army. He purposely placed the nails into the shoes in such a way that after a few kilometres the horses would no longer be able to walk.

There are two stories about World War II which have struck a deep chord with me. The first is the story my grandmother told me about hearing a V1 flying bomb exploding near their home in Wilrijk. At the time, my mother was at school at St Ursula Primary, which was located at the end of the street. On hearing the explosion my Grandma ran to the school to find my mother in the rubble. She was alive, but three children from neighbouring families had not been so lucky.

The second story that resonates strongly with me was one about my granddad on my Mother’s side. In World War II he worked as a bus driver in the Antwerp Harbour, where he witnessed Jewish people being squashed into train carriages. My grandmother told me that when he came home, he was physically ill.

While 12,000 Belgian servicemen died in World War II, there were approximately 76,000 civilians who died, many due to crimes against humanity, including more than 25,000 Belgian/German Jews deported to the Nazi death camps from Dossin Barracks in Mechelen, primarily to Auschwitz. Only 1200 deportees were believed to have survived the war.

There were approximately 4 million Belgians who became refugees during World War II.  Fleeing mainly to France, they also went to refugee camps in the Netherlands. This figure represented approximately half the population of Belgium at that time (8 million).

Official figures (revised figures) record that in World War 1 approximately 38,000 Belgian servicemen were killed in action, with a further 20,000 dying soon after from injuries related to their service.  An estimated 23,700 Belgian civilians were also killed.

What actually happened on and off the battlefields of Flanders and across Europe during both World Wars is only now receiving the attention and awareness of the broader community; mainly due to the Centenary commemorations. My family’s stories of survival left me with lasting impressions.

When my colleagues, former Honorary French Consul Dr Christine Rothauser and French Consul Sue Crafter, mentioned in 2014 that they would work on an exhibition commemorating the battles of the Western Front I asked if I could join them. From there Adelaide’s Flanders Fields Poppy Trail was created.

The Belgian Ambassador, Juan-Luc Bodson, was delighted to hear about our project and to lend his support as he too feels commemorations at this time are extremely important so that younger generations understand what went on.

I (and all Belgians) will forever be grateful to Australia and in particular to those families who gave their young men to help save our little country and culture from total annihilation. Many Australian soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice on Belgian soil, fighting for my country’s freedom. They will always be remembered by our community.

It is my sincere hope that many can take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to view the exhibitions, see the films, listen to the talks and experience the concerts that have been prepared for the Flanders Fields Poppy Trail commemorations. They aim to express the gratitude that both Belgium and France feels toward Australia for all that was given on the Battlefields of Europe.

I recently translated a Flemish poem from Belgian refugee Jos Hoeck. It’s a poem that sums up the displacement so many felt at this time. Hoeck was based in a refugee camp in Vluchtoord Ede in the Netherlands, where many Belgian people spent World War 1 and World War ll.

Their cottage small and sweet
In Flanders serene and lovely fields
They lived from all worries freed,
Seldom leaving the cottage build’s
Their cottage small and sweet

They had no land nor had they wealth
Their labour gave them their bread
No qualms of how life was treating them
Avoiding poverty with diligence.

The war brought misery
Destroyed the cottage sweet
Their faces turned inconsolably
Dull, saddened by their tears.

In Flanders serene and lovely fields
They once lived peaceful and happy
Now suffering in misery longing
For their cottage small and sweet.

(29-7-1915)  Jos Hoeck (Belgian War Poet)

Lest We Forget.

Heidi Van Gerwen migrated from Belgium to South Australia in 1988. Heidi was a Lecturer and Educational Manager of the Hotel School at the TAFE SA Regency Park International Centre for Hospitality and Food Studies. Heidi won the position of Honorary Consul for Belgium in 2007, and is an active member of the steering committee of the Consular Corps of South Australia. In 2013, Heidi was elected as an Australia Day Ambassador by the Australia Day Council.

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